REVIEW: Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente

Corsair, 2016

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente turns her signature sumptuosity of prose up to full beam in her new novel, Radiance, released in the UK on 3rd March. 

The solar system in which Radiance is set is a fever dream of our own. Humans live in organic structures on Uranus and eat lilies on Pluto. We farm kangaroos on Mars and make films on the Moon. All of this is possible because of a natural phenomenon found on Venus that no one really understands—though of course that never stopped the human race exploiting anything before.

Radiance metafictionally tells the story of Severin Unck, filmmaker and filmmaker’s daughter, and her final, unfinished film: through transcripts, interviews and film clips. Glimpsed through many lenses, Valente’s solar system is a kaleidoscopic spectacle. Distorted by various agendas, the story of Severin Unck circles and circles the truth—about what really happened to Unck on Venus, and about Severin herself—until, in this technicolour carousel of a universe, you’re desperate for reality. What is Severin really like? What really happened to her?

This is a jewel-bright dream of a novel about the noir-ish trope of the beautiful dead girl. Severin is everywhere: she’s the mystery driving the plot; she’s the subject of all the best films; she’s the star, baby. Her absence is the biggest character in the book, and that’s saying something when she stands next to such delights as film star and amateur detective Mary Pellam and sinister studio agent Cythera Brass.

When it comes to the truth, the book neither relents nor demurs. It flirts knowingly with revelation, staging an outlandish murder-mystery denouement to sing and dance the answers we crave while winking at the artifice. And at the end—after the glorious joyride around the planets, after the one thousand-and-one magnificent stories—what are we left with?

Only the answer to the biggest question in the story.

Radiance is a book like being wasted in Las Vegas, all pretty pretty lights and dissolution and hope like a small voice at the bottom of a deep well. Buy the ticket, take the ride, come back dizzy.

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